Who Am I? Part Five


This is what was the secure cage where all my hi-fi equipment was stored. It's located downstairs in the warehouse of Herford store. This is a more recent photo provided by the intrepid John Bastock. Alas, NAAFI Herford is no more.

This is what was the secure cage where all my hi-fi equipment was stored. It’s located downstairs in the warehouse of Herford store. This is a more recent photo provided by the intrepid John Bastock. Alas, NAAFI Herford is no more.

Something pretty spectacular was just around the corner, but there are just a couple of loose ends to tidy up first. I’d got involved with the NAAFI football team, which was actually the SC Herford 4th team. SC Herford played in the second tier of The Bundeslige and it was a motley crew of mainly NAAFI lads that comprised the 4th team, who played in a local German amateur league. I Googled them a couple of years ago to find that they had sadly gone into free fall and were now defunct.

I wasn’t particularly good; I was normally the sub who came on for the last 20 minutes, but sometimes when the team were short of players I got a start. The games were inevitably quite rough, with the rough stuff always, without exception, being instigated by the Brits. To this day I have not seen a more graceful sight than an opposition player being launched into the air by the boot of NAAFI butcher “Mick The Meat”; it was pure ballet that Dame Margot herself would have been proud of. It’s crazy the things that stick in your mind, but I’ve never forgotten Mick. He was a Northern lad; an absolute monster on the football field, but quite the gentleman off it. He even had a tea mug with the words “I’d rather be at the disco” on the side!

Relations between me and some of the other lads became quite strained, to the extent that they no longer passed the ball to me, even if I was in a good position. However, I was that thick during that period of my life that it took me a while to realise. Sonja had been out running and some kids had pushed her over. She badly injured her ankle and had to be hospitalized for a few days. She had to have her leg in plaster for a while and became very bitter; so much so that she took it out on people who had been there for her. One of the girls who she took her bitterness out on was the wife of one of the lads in the football team. They had been great friends of ours, but not anymore. Tony also played for the team and by now his body language indicated that I was no longer top of his Christmas card list. When you lose really good friends it makes you think, and even though I was very unconscious at that time, I had enough awareness to know that there was a lesson in there somewhere.

There was also the business of my job no longer going the way I wanted it to. I had no interest at all in the run-of-the-mill audio equipment that I was now responsible for. It seemed so mundane next to the Hi-Fi equipment and I just became fed up with the whole NAAFI set up and decided it was time to return to the UK. We had visited various members of Sonja’s other families during periodic trips back to England (I say “families” and not family because Doug was Bobby’s third husband so Sonja seemed to have relations all over Southern England). We’d visited her natural father, who lived near Andover, and also her half-sister who lived in Swindon. So, in our wisdom we decided that Swindon would be a great place to move back to. We also had some friends, Kathy and Joe, that we’d know from Germany. I’d worked with Kathy in Bielefeld G&D and got to know Joe through her. Joe was a Captain in the army, he was an ordinary bloke who had worked hard and come up through the ranks. They left Germany a few months before us and were living in officer’s quarters in Lyneham, Wiltshire. Lyneham is not that far from Swindon so they said we could come and stay with them until we found our own place.

During one of our trips back to the UK I’d attended various interviews and been accepted as a salesman with Sun Alliance Services, who were the direct sales wing of the well-known insurance provider Sun Alliance. It was commission only and the harsh realities of what that meant had not occurred to me. Sonja was to go back three weeks before me, she would stay with Kathy and Joe and use the three weeks to look for a job and hopefully find us some accommodation. NAAFI would provide an allowance for removals, but it became apparent that we would not be able to take everything with us because we were only allowed so many cubic meters of space. This meant we would have to do a runner from the flat and lose our deposit. At the time we seemed to have so much money it just didn’t matter. So, Sonja set off for England and for a short while I would be in bloke heaven. I could have as much booze as I could drink. I could listen to loud music through my headphones without a wife I didn’t love nagging me to pay her some attention and I could go out when I wanted without being whinged at. However, all this lulled me into a false sense of security because bloke heaven was about to come crashing down. To explain this properly I need to rewind slightly.

Sonja had worked for an extremely dodgy travel company during our time in Bielefeld that specialised in ferrying service personnel and their families to and from the UK. They had offices in various locations in Germany, including Herford, so when we moved Sonja transferred to the Herford branch. She was working there when she had the accident and even though her leg was still in plaster she was soon able to continue working in the office. One evening I was going somewhere with friends of ours. Sonja didn’t come because someone from the travel company was coming round to see her about “work”. We waited for the bloke to arrive; it was someone I’d met before anyway, and then we left them to their own devices. When we got back a short time later Sonja said she had been asked for her shop keys and once she’d handed them over had been told that she no longer worked for the company. Because I knew they were dodgy, I just assumed that they had some financial problems and they were shafting their employees. There was never any contract after all. Then…

Sonja got another job, just along from Herford shop, with another employer who also provided travel services to service personnel and their families. Whenever I went to pick her up from work in the evening she would always have a story that her dodgy boss had paid her wages with a cheque that bounced and he’d told her to just keep taking money from the cash box until she had the required amount. Then as we were approaching our last Christmas in Germany Sonja said she’d been fired and that she was owed money. In addition to that, just prior to Christmas she said she was going into work on Christmas Day to help out! Even though she no longer worked there, even though she was owed money in unpaid wages! I was flummoxed, I just couldn’t get my head around things. I said, “you must be mad”, but she just said that she felt sorry for him and that his mother had recently died. I decided that it was her decision and that I wasn’t going to interfere. Then it happened… Fast forward to me being in bloke heaven in Germany with my wife back in the UK.

Bloke heaven had been in motion for no more than a week. I went into work as normal and at some stage during the day I was in the vicinity of the foyer when I noticed a man, that I recognised as Sonja’s ex-boss going into the manager’s office with Mr Simpson, who was the store manager. Mike Simpson was as dodgy as they come; so dodgy that his nickname was “Slippery”. Of course, we didn’t call him Slippery to his face, but I actually mean this as a compliment. Unless you worked for NAAFI yourself during this period you will not understand what I mean. Anyhow… the next thing I know a message comes via the grapevine that I’m wanted in the manager’s office. Slippery said he would leave us to it, and what followed was nothing short of comical. We sat at opposite sides of the desk to each other and he proceeded to tell me how my wife had fleeced him. I honestly thought it was some kind of joke; especially when he showed me documentary evidence, which implied that Sonja had signed deposit slips that showed she had banked money. But instead of actually putting the money in the bank she’d kept it. I remember saying to him, “no one is that stupid”, because this was not a one-off; it happened literally loads of times. Show me a fraudster that repeatedly signs their name to a crime and I’ll show you an idiot!

What I found quite disturbing was that his tone of voice and his body language indicated that he thought I was in on the scam. I was having none of it, but he wasn’t having it from me either. I refused to tell him Sonja’s whereabouts and contact phone number, but not only had she apparently been the worst fraudster in the history of the human race, but she also left a forwarding address! Now I knew for sure that it was all simply a huge misunderstanding; it had to be, didn’t it? To alleviate the situation I promised him that I would phone Sonja that night, get her version of the story and then come to see him in his office during my lunch break the next day. That evening some neighbours very kindly let me phone Sonja at Kathy and Joe’s. I told her this incredible story and she said she knew nothing about it. Her ex-boss had said that Interpol were on the case. Sonja was a lot of things, but an international criminal mastermind she wasn’t, so I just didn’t take that statement seriously.

True to my word I went to see him in his office the next day. There was a woman working there too who also said that Sonja had stolen the money. I should add that when I put it to him that he had constantly paid Sonja’s wages with cheques that bounced and that he still owed her money, he looked at me in a way that suggested he thought I was either a complete buffoon or I was trying to have a laugh at his expense. I simply didn’t believe that my wife, or indeed anyone, could be that stupid so it was a stalemate. There was a real atmosphere in that office when I turned and left. The next two weeks or so were spent with me constantly looking over my shoulder. I also decided that if the door buzzer went while I was in the flat I wouldn’t answer the door. Ten days before I was due to leave the removals people turned up. I wasn’t too pleased because it turned out they were killing two birds with one stone. They already had a load on, which limited my space even more. I prioritised our belongings and just left what didn’t go on the van in the flat. I spent the next ten days before leaving still looking over my shoulder and not answering the door. I’d phoned Sonja and told her the outcome of my chat with her ex-boss and she still said she knew nothing about it.

The big day came, 28 February 1986, I had more than a tear in my eye as I left the shop, which surprised me. That evening the VW Passat was packed up to the hilt. I closed the door to the flat for the last time and put the key in the caretaker’s outside letter box. John Bastock came to wave me off and I drove off into the night.

To finish this part of my story I’m going to share something very strange with you that happened during my journey. I had driven a fair distance down the autobahn but was nonetheless still in Germany. All of a sudden there was a problem with the car. I knew nothing about cars back then and still don’t. To my relief the problem reared its head just as I was approaching a service station, so I took the slip road and pulled up. I can’t remember exactly what happened but when I stopped the car a German man just happened to be there. He spoke in English, I assumed because he saw my British plate, and asked if I had a problem. I seem to remember him asking me to lift the bonnet but I can’t remember him doing anything. The next thing I knew the car was running fine and I was on my way to the port in Belgium. The whole episode seemed to take no time at all. I’ve never forgotten that.

Part Six follows soon…

Who Am I? Part Four


The old staff hostel in Bielefeld, kindly provided by John Bastock. The right hand centre balcony is my old room. The lower balcony that Doug reversed my car into is out of sight round the back.

The old staff hostel in Bielefeld, kindly provided by John Bastock. The right hand centre balcony is my old room. The lower balcony that Doug reversed my car into is out of sight round the back.

I should mention here before I continue with the concluding part of my time with NAAFI, that in March 1980, just before setting off to work in Germany, me and my dad buried the hatchet; we settled our differences. We realised that we loved each other dearly and I further realised that it was a clash of egos that was at the heart of our conflict. Some years later I would fully understand why things had been the way that they were. Now where was I? Oh yes.. In Bielefeld drinking myself stupid.

My best mate in Bielefeld was Tony Black; a Scottish lad from Paisley. We went all over the place together and had an absolute hoot. My single biggest regret from my NAAFI days was that we fell out, and it was all my fault; I let him down badly. But I digress… The new sensible me (who was still drinking extremely heavily), started to go out with a girl called Sonja, a dependent who worked in Bielefeld NAAFI. Tony had been out with her for a while but he, very wisely, stopped seeing her. There was a ten year age difference between me and Sonja. However, she was incredibly mature for her age and I was the opposite. Her step father, Doug, was in the Royal Medical Corps and was only a couple of years older than me. He was also incredibly hen-pecked by Sonja’s mum Roberta, or Bobby as she liked to be called. Then there was Nicki, the sister from hell and Matthew the youngest of the siblings, who was the only sane member of the family. Bobby was about 13 years older than Doug, or DOUGLAAAAAAAAAAAAASSSSSSSS as I called him. Because of the importance I placed on boozing I’d never learned to drive, but the new, sensible me decided now was the time.

To make sure I learned to drive I went out and bought a car. It was a VW Passat, which was being sold by “Smoothy Boothy”, (Steve Booth) the foodhall manager. He sold it to me via NAAFI car sales. Later someone told me that he’d ripped me off with the price, but it was a very reliable car and I got a lot of mileage out of it. I knew Smoothy from Gremmendorf; he’d been G&D manager before Tony Turner. Doug duly offered to teach me to drive, but the first thing he did to my lovely VW Passat was to reverse it into the rear lower balcony of the staff hostel. He promised me he’d get it repaired but he never did. Bobby gave me and Sonja permission to move in together so we got a flat in a nice location out in the country. In the meantime I’d passed my driving test via other sources. Bobby and Doug were not happy, I think they felt I was a bad influence, but they tolerated the situation. We were expected to go round every Sunday for dinner, where we would have to play out this charade of pretending to like Bobby’s cooking, which was absolutely atrocious. Because of her constant hen-pecking of Doug and her interfering we nicknamed her “BA”, which was short for battle-axe! Good old Nicki grassed us up, which just made the situation worse. However, it wasn’t all doom and gloom.

The new sensible me wanted another posting. Herford shop was a short drive down the autobahn and they had a Hi-Fi centre. The G&D manager from Herford had visited Bielefeld shop and I’d had a good chat with him about the chances of getting a move. He said that it seemed to him that I was the only one in Bielefeld G&D who knew what he was doing, so he would not have a problem with me working for him. Of course, that wasn’t true, it was just his perception, I worked with some really good people at that time. The assistant manager, John Bastock, for example, who I’m still in contact with today. It was John who somehow acquired the old photos that I’ve posted here in Part Four. And so it happened, I was to start work in Herford NAAFI, still with the job title of “storeman”, but working specifically in the Hi-Fi centre with a view to eventually taking over from the current Hi-Fi salesman (another Steve), who had ambitions to become a G&D manager.

I continued living in Bielefeld and made the short commute down the autobahn every day to Herford. Tony thought I was mad hooking up with Sonja. He’d had a glimpse of what things were like with her family and had made the sensible choice to get out. Bobby had a history of mental illness and I found out the hard way that Sonja was a chip off the old block. Mine and Tony’s relationship was not what it had been anyway by now. Some of my behaviour towards him was not the sort of behaviour you would expect from a friend. But having said that, at this point, we were still mates but no longer close.

The thing with living outside of the hostel was that because I was not married to Sonja, I was not afforded the same financial perks as married personnel. So, with me still earning my single man’s wage, we were reliant on Sonja’s wages too in order to make ends meet. Now they say that if you stand on the edge of a cliff long enough, eventually someone will push you off. I actually just made that up. However, that’s exactly what happened.

Bobby and Doug announced that Doug was being posted back to the UK. At the time they were scheduled to leave Germany it would still be three months before Sonja’s 18th birthday, so Bobby took great delight in telling me that unless I made an “honest woman” of her daughter, she would force Sonja to go back to the UK with them. Bobby may have been unhinged but she wasn’t stupid. She knew that my single man’s wages would not be enough to sustain the flat, and also that I was under contract with the landlord. If she carried out her threat it would have put me in a very difficult situation.  My bloke mentality weighed things up, and one evening while Sonja was sitting on the loo I said, “I suppose we’d better get married then”. That was that; the roller coaster ride commenced. Things happened very quickly, we somehow managed to make some arrangements and got married in the UK at Wood Green Civic Centre; my wages immediately doubled. Result!

I also got officially promoted to Trainee Hi-Fi Salesman; it carried assistant manager status so as well as getting all the extra perks for being married I got a pay rise too. All of a sudden this boy from North London was in financial heaven.

Steve became a kind of trainee manager in G&D and then I got two more quick promotions. First to fully fledged Hi-Fi Salesman and then to Hi-Fi Salesman In Charge. Two more promotions meant two more pay rises! The only fly in the ointment was that we also decided to move to Herford, and it was only then that we found out that our landlord in Bielefeld was a bit of a crook. It turned out that certain things in our contract were no longer legal. To cut a long story short we had to get legal advice. There is a kind of tenants association in Germany that provides free legal aid for those who come up against unscrupulous landlords. We saw a solicitor who was absolutely fantastic. We didn’t get all of our Dm1,000 deposit back, but thanks to him we got about Dm720 back. For a time we were in cloud cuckoo land; we had money coming out of our ears. We ate out most nights of the week and the cupboards and freezer were always full. Sonja didn’t really drink, but I was able to carry on my favourite pastime to my heart’s content.  Sonja also found work in Herford so the money just kept flowing in.

Steve did so well in his manager training that he got his own department in another shop, and my partner in crime from Bielefeld, John Bastock, was promoted to G&D manager and moved to Herford. All was going swimmingly well, but as expected, eventually a few cracks started to appear. NAAFI was cutting back, so at the time I became a Hi-Fi Salesman the seminars in plush hotels were a thing of the past. There was still seminars to attend, but they were all held in-house, so wherever I had to travel to, the accommodation provided was always in the local staff hostel. We would still get taken out for meals and drinks by the reps, which I appreciated, but I was too late to catch the gravy train. If we were lucky, we would get a free t-shirt and the odd blank metal or chrome cassette, but that was about it. NAAFI no longer considered Hi-Fi to be exclusive either and the “powers that be” decided that it was no longer to be displayed in enclosed Hi-Fi centres. My little empire was closed and all the equipment was displayed in the G&D department amongst all the run-of-the-mill audio equipment. Sacrilege! The writing was on the wall. The job lost its glamour, my marriage was a sham and a disaster so it was only a matter of time before something had to give. Part Five to follow shortly…

Me looking like an axe killer! Taken in Bielefeld hostel during my Who blasting days.

Me looking like an axe killer! Taken in Bielefeld hostel during my Who blasting days.

Mr Sensible the Hi-Fi salesman. Taken in 1985 just before my time with NAAFI came to an end. It was taken in a photo booth (I think at Herford rail station but I can't be sure)

Mr Sensible the Hi-Fi salesman. Taken in 1985 just before my time with NAAFI came to an end. It was taken in a photo booth (I think at Herford rail station but I can’t be sure).

 

 

 

Who Am I? Part Three


11986393_712456928860111_1540385153728877075_n

This was taken when I was in the army in Germany. As you can see, I was out of it! I don’t know why I’m resting my head on a bed block. Bed blocks were unheard of once basic training was out of the way.

My time with NAAFI was mixed to say the least. On one hand I sunk to new lows, and on the other, I grew up; well.. a bit. My first posting was at the main shop in Münster-Gremmendorf. Me and the rest of the NAAFI lads lived in the staff hostel on Buller Barracks, which was home to The Glosters. Buller was attached to another barracks, the name of which escapes me, and this other barracks housed The Royal Hampshire Regiment. The Hampshires and The Glosters hated each other, and I hated both of them. I developed this deep resentment of the army and anything remotely military. The general public has a perception of the army that is so far removed from the truth. I resented the whole ethos of military life; the bullying, the hypocrisy and the sheer unfairness of it all made me despair. So, I now found myself working for a retail establishment that served the forces. I was also housed on an army barracks. The fact that I chose this myself did not enter my head; all I could feel was my cynicism and resentment.

NAAFI was an antiquated corporation staffed mainly by ex-service personnel, the dependents of current service personnel and German nationals. I started off with the job title of “Storeman”, in the foodhall section. I remember on my first day, putting packets of biscuits on the shelf whilst wearing a brown overall that was big enough to go camping in! Is this what my life had come to?

Alcohol was always on hand. Back in the UK I’d continued to drink but it wasn’t as intense. This was due to the restricted licensing hours and the fact that English beer is so gassy. Now I was back in Germany I could rekindle my love affair with the amber nectar. My drinking became very heavy once again. We used to have to work every Saturday until 12:45. Quite often, we wouldn’t bother going back to the hostel in the van; we would go straight over the road to The Gremmendorfer Hoff, which was the local pub. After copious amounts of beer in “The Grem” we would sometimes get a taxi into town before falling back into the hostel during the early hours.Or we would just stay in the Grem for the whole evening and stagger home later. It was during my time in Gremmendorf that I got to know some British lads that were working out in Germany for a company called Tylers. They did all the grass cutting on the army camps and they were paid very, very well. Far much more than I got paid, which was why it was not a good move on my part to hang out with them. My wages never lasted long, but I needed money to fund my drinking habits.

After the Saturday session I would then be out all day and night on Sunday. Most times I would not get to bed until after midnight. I would then take it a bit easy Monday and (maybe) Tuesday, but quite often I’d be out from Wednesday night onwards, either with one or two of the NAAFI lads or with one or more of the grass cutters. However, working in the foodhall was driving me round the bend so I made some enquiries about transferring over to the gifts and durables department; or “G&D”, as we called it. I went and asked the shop manager, or “Old Badger”, as we called him, if it would be possible to transfer over. He proceeded to give me a lecture, saying something like, “as far as I’m concerned mate if you don’t want to work in the foodhall then you don’t want to work for the corporation”, but he agreed that I could transfer. The G&D manager was a man called Tony Turner; he was a great bloke. I came in most mornings nursing a hangover but he cut me a lot of slack. I could hide away in the store, checking off deliveries and stacking up boxes of goods etc, and I also got out and about quite a lot delivering washing machines with Sid the van driver. I don’t know what his real name was, but everyone called him Sid.

I had a real laugh with the majority of the lads I worked with and made friends with some of the dependents as well. One of my best mates in Gremmendorf was George Topping. He was an Irish lad a couple of years younger than me. He lived in the hostel and we would drink in the Grem together. George was only young but he had some false teeth. When he got drunk he would take them out and put them in his beer. Then he would stand up on the table and start singing; he was asked to leave on several occasions. However, all the alcohol couldn’t hide the fact that something within me wasn’t right. My alcohol fueled behaviour also made some people not want to have anything to do with me. The emotional pain was still there eating away at me. So I did what I always did, I tried to run away from it. I went to see Badger again and asked for a posting to another shop. I think he was glad to see the back of me and I was on my way to Bielefeld.

At first Bielefeld seemed OK; new town, new beer! The staff hostel was a private dwelling in a residential area. It was a respectable street… apart from us. We had a block, which was separated into flats. The flats consisted of three rooms, each housing a member of staff, and a shared toilet/shower room. My room was small, but it had a balcony, so I was happy. It was pretty much the same story as Gremmendorf, although I will add that the long-suffering neighbours eventually had a gut full of me blasting out The Who at all hours, and eventually a phone call was made to the boss. We were all told that if there was any more episodes of loud music the police would be called in. How inconsiderate!

There were two pubs in the immediate vicinity of the hostel, and town was about a mile away on foot, so there was always opportunity for the thirst to be quenched. There was also a fantastic local student pizzeria place. The pizzas were absolute heaven. Unfortunately, after doing a runner from there one weekend I couldn’t go back! It was in Bielefeld that I tried to become a bit sensible. But first I had to start off again in the foodhall. That was brain numbing and it took me a little while to transfer over to the G&D section. Once I got into G&D I still went out delivering washing machines etc. and did the general store work, but I also started to wear a suit and took on a more customer facing role in the shop and on the tills. Now, I should just mention that…

In Gremmendorf there had been a Hi-Fi department. Only certain NAAFI shops had them because it was considered to be a specialist line. I developed a fascination for Hi-Fi, after all, if I wanted to blast out The Who I needed a really meaty sound system to compliment the dulcet tones. I’d also heard the yarns spun by “Hi-Fi John”, the salesman in charge. There were tales of seminars in plush hotels, free slap-up meals and booze all paid for by the reps and free merchandise. I decided that this was the world I wanted to be in, so now that I was in Bielefeld being sensible (a little bit) I set about trying to get on the Hi-Fi gravy train.

I’m going to end Part Three here, because I don’t want it to be too long. The section on my time in NAAFI is quite significant really so I will split it in two. I intend writing it tomorrow; hope I’ve not just lied to you!